A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind?


The gentleman who runs Shadow To Light asked me to take a look at a paper which Sam Harris approvingly quoted. The 2010 peer-reviewed one-page paper shares today’s title (sans question mark) and was written by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, appearing in Science.

The pair are from Harvard which allowed them, it appears, to garner national attention for their project, which asked people to log onto the website TrackYourHappiness.org. The website boasts itself as “a new scientific research project that investigates what makes life worth living.”

Which is an immediate failure in the narrow sense that science must remain forever mute on what makes life worth living. That is the task of religion, philosophy, literature, and other arts. Saying science can tell us means the billions of people who lived before (say) 1500 had no clue why they were happy or sad. But never mind.

The 5,000 or so participants had to have a (surprise) iPhone, which was in part given over to alerting holders, via text message or email, from 1 to 3 times a day, to answer several questions, including in what activity were they engaging, whether their “minds” were “wandering”, and how numerically happy they were.

How long after receiving these messages it took participants to answer I couldn’t discover—perhaps their minds were wandering when they were received?—but since some people reported engaging in sexual intercourse and others in driving, it might have been appreciable. But perhaps iPhone users are more dedicated to their hand machines than I suspect?

Anyway, everybody was contacted from between 1 and 39, average 8, times; compliance was about 83%, meaning not everybody responded to every message.

The authors say, “Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them,” which is true. That is because humans are rational beings, which implies having wander-capable minds, and other animals do not. Yet somehow from this the authors conclude:

Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?

Living in the moment? If your mind is always “in the moment”, how does it escape into the next moment and have more than one thought? Skip it.

The authors claim to to have “solved” the problem of sampling people’s thoughts with their iPhone app. And that was to ask participants “How are you feeling right now?” (from 0 to 100) and “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” Such as letting the traffic before you dissolve and instead think about designing an internet survey? Or not paying attention to the television commercial (several participants claimed to be watching TV) and thinking about something more pleasant?

Now comes the wee p-values. “[M]ultilevel regression revealed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not”, confirmed, as said, by a wee p-value. Further, and in the category of Who Knew?: “people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (42.5% of samples) than to unpleasant topics (26.5% of samples) or neutral topics (31% of samples)”.

But wasn’t it just the case that when faced with dull or familiar topics, participants’ minds would wander? And wouldn’t whether their minds wandered into happy or sad places depend on the (unsampled) nature of what urgent matters were pressing down on participants’ minds, and don’t negative matters cause us to consider them more urgently than positive ones?

They say no. “[T]ime-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.” Time-lag analysis? In supplementary material, they say: “We used multilevel regression to determine whether there was a relationship between happiness in given sample (T) and mind-wandering in the previous sample (T-1) and/or the next sample (T+1).” The conclusion of which was

…we found a strong negative relationship between mind-wandering at T-1 and happiness at T, but no relationship between mind-wandering at T+1 and happiness at T. In other words, a person’s happiness was strongly related to whether they had been mind-wandering in the previous sample, but was unrelated to whether they were mind-wandering in the next sample.

This is a silly statistical procedure, of course. The times were not constant, the things thought about where not constant or controlled for, and then consider some samples came from previous days. And also that quantifying happiness on a numerical scale, as often as it is done, is absurd. Is my “50” the same as yours? Is my “50” the same as my “50” yesterday?

The problem with this study is the same as that with “big data”, incidentally. The ability to collect massive amounts of “data”, most of it highly suspect, does not bring about an increase in intelligence.

Update On religions not wanting your mind to wander, listen to this speech by Peter Kreeft, starting about here.


  1. Ye Olde Statisician

    Looks like social scientists have discovered work sampling techniques, but instead of observing objective facts (“engaged in Task A”) they get reports of subjective tudes.

  2. When an article says “peer reviewed”, the reviewers should be listed, so they can bear the onus of foolishness.

  3. PS–when I reviewed articles (way back when) I always signed the review. Once or twice I got a thank you for spotting errors (which were corrected). More times I got a nasty note for being stupid or hyper-critical, but that was worth it.

  4. Sander van der Wal

    Asking people what makes them happy is not telling people what makes them happy. So it could be good science.

  5. Briggs


    They are not, of course, asking anybody what makes them happy. So it can’t be good science.

  6. John B

    Wandering Minds.
    How is that different from ‘Enqiring Minds’?
    We call it Free Association. Underline FREE.
    As opposed to being in lock-step with the latest ideology.
    Oh my! Should I be thinking that? Guilt!

    I remember the 80’s computer text-adventure company “INFOCOM”
    had an offering titled “A Mind Forever Voyaging”

    I was so-o-o-o tempted to get it…

  7. Ken

    The wandering/distracted temperament (one having difficulty in “living in the moment”), and its associated unhappiness, has been summed up by cartoons such as:


    And: http://bipolarskates.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/snoopy-my-mind-gets-to-wandering.png .

    Or even famous fictional characters, such as: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. ” Yoda (Star Wars, 1977)

    Such mentions illustrate that the wandering mind temperament is an unhappy-ish person has for very long been a truism in known by the mainstream (something that “everybody knows”).

    Monks of numerous faiths have spent decades of their lives learning to clear their minds of all thought (meditation — a recurring philosophical & religious tradition, by the way), to eliminate ‘mind-wandering’ completely and achieve ultimate bliss. How did the philosophical angle get missed in this?!?!?

    So these researchers came up with a nearly effortless means of collecting some data & coming up with a number (indicative of, probably, some grad students that whipped up the app after post-exam discussions at the local watering hole). Whoopteedo. Self-reported data is inherently subject to criticism any fool can muster…but come up with a better way of extracting such info from people’s minds/brains/skulls — that would take real talent, and probably technology that won’t be invented in our lifetimes, if ever.

    If one wants to complain about such quantified analysis, why not go right to the beginning and critique [or recreate] some of the earliest & most famous numbers, such as:

    ‘…the lives of the just are 729 times more pleasant than the tyrants’…’ Plato, The Republic, IX 587e)

    No doubt, whatever method & data went into developing that philosopher’s calculation was flawed…which just goes to show that philosophy, prone to such ‘philosophism’ from the outset (which predates science by centuries) ought to have ceased for good with Plato rather than persisting — just like science (given all the flawed research one reads hereabouts) probably should have stopped back when Earth, Air, Fire & Water were sum of knowledge… Wouldn’t we all be that much better off…

  8. Sheri

    Living in the moment is fine till the groceries run out.

    I’m quite happy with my mind wandering. It’s only a problem when it wanders off too far and I have trouble locating it. 🙂

  9. Gary

    I’m happy I don’t have an iPhone.
    And the following somehow seems relevant….

    I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
    And stops my mind from wandering
    Where it will go

    I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
    And kept my mind from wandering
    Where it will go

    And it really doesn’t matter if
    I’m wrong I’m right
    Where I belong I’m right
    Where I belong
    See the people standing there
    Who disagree and never win
    And wonder why they don’t get in my door

    I’m painting my room in the colourful way
    And when my mind is wandering
    There I will go

    And it really doesn’t matter if
    I’m wrong I’m right
    Where I belong I’m right
    Where I belong
    Silly people run around
    They worry me and never ask me
    Why they don’t get past my door

    I’m taking the time for a number of things
    That weren’t important yesterday
    And I still go

    I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
    Stops my mind from wandering
    Where it will go

    -Lennon and McCartney (of course), 1967

  10. John B


    Mind is traipsing all over the place

    Is fixing the hole in the roof keeping the mind from wandering
    or was it the rain getting in that kept the mind from wandering

    Thinking of :
    Don’t let the rain come down … my roofs got a hole in it and I might drown

    Is wondering (worrying) about the rain keeping our mind from wondering (wandering) about creation

    What Ken says, strikes a chord but there is something missing…
    What Sheri says, strikes a chord but there is something missing…

    Warning: Very bad Moody Blues puns ahead…

    Perhaps we’re missing a chord that we’re in search of…
    Perhaps it’s a Question of Balance…
    Are we happy about those quests?
    or are we anxious and impatient about the quests?

    Whilst the Zen Yoda was critical of Luke in his wanderings (his lack of focus and purpose)…
    Did Yoda forget his own wanderings or was Yoda always Zen?
    After all, Obi Wan’s retort about the similarity between Obi Wan at that age and Luke – was that NOT an invitation to Yoda to examine his own path?

    Whoops! Off I go…

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